Send Your Message With the Rays of the Sun (written in 1992)
By Dr. Judit Gellerd
There are people of words and there are those of deeds. It has been easier for me to create a whole Unitarian Transylvania-movement in the United States and Canada than to give a full account of it in one article. Though words are my “weapons” whether from the pulpit or from my computer. Thousands of letters, publications, memorandums are flowing out of Chico to reach liberal religious groups and churches all over the world. And the "army" of Transylvania's friends is becoming larger every day. My letters are seeds in a Biblical and statistical sense. I need to sow a lot of them and target them well so that at least a portion of them would bring fruits. Thanks God, the harvest is abundant.
In fact, it is so abundant that the two of us are less and less capable to overview all of it. Our Transylvania movement is based on the two hundred Unitarian Universalist churches of the United States and Canada who opened their eyes and hearts for their Transylvanian Unitarian sisters and brothers.
How this beautiful adventure has started? As romantically as people like to hear love-stories. In fact, it began with a "happy end". I had been one of those Transylvanian intellectuals glowing with enthusiasm and ideals, but rejected by my homeland (under communist dictatorship). So I left it behind and lived the torments of exile. After graduating from a music conservatory, then from medical school, I continued my medical practice in Budapest. I added Neurology and Psychiatry to my basic specialization in Internal Medicine. I sang in the great Catholic choir of the Matthias Church in Budapest and played the violin in the Semmelweis Medical Orchestra. But essentially I had always been on my way back to Transylvania. I still believed that I would be able to save that small world.
An unexpected invitation, however, has changed my life for ever. In 1987 the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF) invited me to its world congress at Stanford University, California to represent liberal religious women of my country. There I met my husband, Dr. George M. Williams, professor of Asian religions at California State University. We did not waste time between seeing and falling in love with each other. One year later I was a special student of Starr King School for the Ministry at Berkeley, California and at Christmas the wife of George. Our marriage was made in heaven.
Since then I see the world "distorted": I see a happy end at the end of every road and every cause, but at least I see the possibilities. I have become fanatically attached to optimism. And I do believe that enthusiasm is "infectious" and optimism touches, inspires people to join together for a good cause. And ours is nothing less than saving a minority community of one thousand Transylvanian Unitarians, the oldest church of this faith. We create conditions for its renewal.
The first step for me was to give up medicine. After all, any physician can practice the healing art, but few are those of us who are able to take up such complex, self-designed mission and with such powerful motivating force as the legacy of my martyred father, Dr. Imre Gellérd, the scholar, the pastor. On the peak of his brilliant career he was sentenced to seven years of political prison and an additional five years of deprivation from his civil rights. But even the harshest prison was unable to break his free spirit. Marginalized by his own beloved church, and to escape a new arrest by the Secret Police, he fled into death rather than give up his most sacred values. My mother's life-example was in no means less inspiring. Suffering unspeakable humiliation and persecution, existential struggle and intimidation, she raised her two children giving us the best education.
The path which is ours must be recognized and accepted, no matter how difficult is the choice. And then we just need to walk it, tall and never losing the goal from our sight. Such walk has a great attracting power. Faith is a magnet: attracts the searching, open spirits. There are many such people among North-American Unitarian Universalist.
At the beginning they exhibited a great surprise: Is anybody really from Transylvania? Most of them considered Transylvania a fantasy country of tales and vampires. However, people were delighted to discover it as a real land of Unitarians! When we were talking about Francis David and the four centuries of our religious heritage - well, this kept people’s attention alive. To have such “cousins”, after all, was a matter of prestige. The timing couldn't have been better, for, according to many, American Unitarianism is in a kind a spiritual crisis. It seeks its own essence through bringing together elements of major religious traditions, as its own. With European eyes, this religion is a kind of "American phenomenon". It is undoubtedly free, in such extent, that many times we cannot even see the religious in it. And those who seek liberation of the spirit through the transcendent - I would call God - well, worship service in many churches would leave their hart empty. Transylvania, therefor has a distinct role in worldwide Unitarianism, but especially for North Americans. They discover their four hundred year old faith the same time when they celebrate the fifth century of America’s discovery.
This process, however, did not happen spontaneously. We had to do a lot of education and re-education. So that beyond the exotic, the depth of their own religious heritage would be recognized and respected; we are inspiring them even to admire a people that have survived persecution for centuries; and to learn to recognize tears of suffering beyond the solemn smile. More than 160 UU churches and thousands of Unitarians are learning this and lot more through it. This knowledge is spiritually transforming.
We published seven books in the past years (eleven books by 1997), most of them needed second edition. Our primary goal was to present the Transylvanian Unitarian literature and theology. Nobody before me has ever translated extensively Unitarian material from Hungarian into English. I had an "easy" task, for I had the monumental heritage of my father, who wrote the only intellectual history of four centuries Unitarianism in Transylvania, as reflected in sermonic literature. His Master's thesis and Doctoral dissertation is a 600 page-work which I have translated into English and the Edwin Mellen Press in New York is going to publish it. It is ready to be published in Hungarian. But it has already stirred a great deal of excitement in scholarly circles. I was asked to present it at Meadville/Lombard Theological School and at Collegium and other conferences. We published a short summary of it for general public.
We also published two Hungarian volumes: a volume of Sermons and one of Theological Essays by Imre Gellérd and distributed the books among ministers and theological students. This year I wrote and edited a Guidebook for Partner Churches, (and a new version in 1997 after two volumes of Sermons on Transylvania by Unitarian Universalist ministers). The success of these volumes is beyond imagination - I am constantly hand-making new copies of them. UU churches appreciate useful hints and "How to"s, we appreciate the proceeds which help the Seminary students in Kolozsvár.
There is a new and increasing "fashion" in the United States to make a pilgrimage to Transylvania. At the very beginning there was the grand procession of leaders of the denomination, great feasts in villages and even greater promises. Then the realization that Transylvania was painfully impoverished and needed a lot of help, and the fact that there were windows of opportunities wide open to do it, suddenly made this newly found cousin uncomfortable for the official church policy. It was easier to express great feelings of compassion than to give money for revitalization of Transylvania's churches. So, Boston sought other Unitarian groups to extend its big brother’s care, like Russia or Pakistan - a kind of world Unitarian mission. Commitments of help - even establishing new Unitarian churches where has never existed one - were intended away from Transylvania.
But never underestimate the power of a grassroots movement. At the beginning I was invited in UU churches of California, later in many other states, to all the greatest UU churches, to speak about Transylvania and play its music. The first moment of glory in our movement was the General Assembly in Calgary, Canada.
Thousands of Unitarians celebrating together is truly a highlight of the year. With the Transylvanian banner and chalice, wearing the traditional Transylvanian folk costume, my husband - who is an honorary Transylvanian on his own right - and I were the marshals of the banner parade and I was one of the festive speakers. The main theme of the GA was “Building a global village”. I spoke about my dear homeland which is the homeland of Unitarianism; Transylvania, the cradle and cradle song; the depth of the past and the clear spring; the sacred pilgrimage place that recharges one's spirit, especially if one is Unitarian. In the great theater of Calgary, it became clear that Transylvania touched many souls and hearts. Hundreds of people were attending our three Transylvania workshops, we had to repeat the show of our new video film. The beautiful gothic chalice, made to the memory of my father, was used to serve communion at the UU Christian Fellowship's worship service. Transylvania was in the focus of the GA (and many times since). Other American churches became jealous of the UU-s for having such exotic sister church which can even be saved! But this has been just the beginning.
Let us speak about the seed-sowing. The Center for Free Religion was established by my husband, George M. Williams in the late seventies for the purpose of research and publication in the field of Asian religions. After my appearing in his life and moving into his Californian home, the Center soon became a Transylvania aid center. All my work is volunteered and so is a quarter of George's salary and much of his time. That I work 14 hours a day, seven days a week, writing letters and articles, sermons and projects - is just natural. But my husband shares my passion of serving my people. The Center for Free Religion is no longer the two of us only, but thousands of Unitarians behind us, helping, supporting, loving Transylvania.
In 1990 the UUA officially re-started the Sister Church Program of the twenties. The essence of our contribution was to make it work, to organize, coordinate it, to overcome initial confusion - that is, to re-invent the project. This program means that each of our Transylvanian churches has a North-American UU partner church. We are building bridges cross the ocean, cross language barriers; after long decades of isolation, we re-open the hidden and forgotten path between Transylvania and the rest of the world. We try to overcome the paralysis caused by fear during a cruel dictatorship.
A village bell-tower is dangerously leaning? It must not fall if it is just a matter of money. It must be repaired. Oh, how many times such an emergency request seems nearly impossible to respond to. And that moment we have nothing but faith alone. But God always provides the means of solution, ways of overcome. Certainly one has to recognize those means And then one must act. Tens of thousands of dollars (close to one million dollars by 1997) have reached the villages. The lucky ones were given tractors and other agricultural equipment. And what is so promising is, that more and more churches respond, invent projects to help - this has become a matter of prestige.
We have organized a cottage industry project for women’s' circle and many beautiful embroidery and weavings reached the shores of America. Here we made them a high fashion in Unitarian circles. More and more UU churches introduce Transylvania style worship services and decorate their churches with Transylvanian handicrafts. The Chico campus of the California State University exhibited a collection of wood block prints by Transylvanian Unitarian artist Geza Kovacs. Enchanting wall hangings by Iren Orban and photos by Zsigmond Balint are wandering from church to church and having great success. (And many more similar exhibitions happened all over the continent since).
We, the Center for Free Religion won two major grants from the Veatch Foundation, in amount of fifty and sixty thousand dollars toward building three churches in Transylvania: in Sepsiszentgyörgy, Barót and Székelyudvarhely. And we bought a church building for a new congregation of 500 members in Szentegyhaza (Vlahita).
As many churches, as many inspiring story of genuine encounter and partnership. Not only floods of letters of happiness and gratitude arrive to Chico every day, but some of the UU churches published an entire volume of their story of a deep spiritual transformative experience that the partner church relationship has brought to them. "I am a new person... we have become a different congregation since Transylvania" - one can hear this typical confession. We, Transylvanians whose theological core idea is "value Christianity", we understand the process, the enriching experience.
Now as the partner church program is growing out of our immediate assistance and we have the assurance for survival of the village churches, we can focus more on education at all levels with a priority for seminary students. We can work to establish a printing press and to rebuild the infrastructure of the Church, support the retired clergy and widows with small pension. In this spirit, we created the Imre Gellérd Foundation which tries to facilitate church renewal, assisting the ever present emergencies and being always flexible.
When we brought the first desktop publishing computer system to Transylvania, we laid the foundation of a church printing press. In five days (and nights) George trained a few enthusiastic seminary students in desktop publishing. As an "exam", they published their own journal, the ZIZI, which is a success since then. But their dream is bolder and we try to support their literary ambitions.
Last Summer we sponsored a very successful summer scholar intensive course at the Szeged University (the "Harvard" of Hungary in humanities), in collaboration with the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. This Fall (1992) George was the first scholar in Eastern Europe to introduce the academic study of religion into secular universities of Szeged and Pécs. We - I am the simultaneous interpreter for George - also lectured at the Kolozsvár Unified Theological Institute. The main goal of the Szeged project and the American scholarships for young Transylvanian ministers is to train much needed future scholars and seminary professors. We continue our work to create the financial means for the English teaching program at the Kolozsvár Seminary and for scholarships at Meadville/Lombard and Starr King Theological Schools.
All of these dreams are based on the work of volunteers and generous donors. For we have no budget as such. We cover all expenses, travel, emergencies from our own resources. In this sense our visits to Transylvania are not "official". However, we represent the 180 churches of North America, trying to find ways of most efficient assistance and then help churches and individuals in accomplishing their projects and dreams.
As a side product, we also make beautiful video films on Transylvania and its life, its traditions and culture, churches and children. The IARF and its General Secretary, Dr. Robert Traer is working with us, using our expertise and experience. This is a precious support, knowing the international liberal community behind us.
Next year the world will celebrate the hundred year anniversary of the World Parliament of Religions (1893). We prepare to respond to invitations to speak in celebrations in India and Japan. We bring Transylvania’s message to the Far East.
Think positively - one hears the slogan of California. But how difficult to practice this in our lives in Transylvania when inflation is reaching world record and when hope is being curtailed daily. Yet, there is no other way and asset but hope. Without hope one cannot even live until tomorrow. And the future starts with the tomorrow, though our steps forward are rather crawling.
The message from Transylvania keeps arriving even through the rays of the Sun. And there are more and more here who understand this message.